I will never be shot reaching for my driver’s license. A police officer, upon seeing me, won’t automatically judge me as an immediate threat. I’ll never end up in jail after being pulled over for not signaling a lane change. If I’m pulled over for a broken taillight, I’ll leave that encounter with law enforcement alive – maybe a little irritated – but alive.
I can say this with virtual certainty because I am white, and because I know. I know because the last time I was pulled over for going four miles over the school zone speed limit with the purse that had my proof of insurance in the house I just left, the officer ran my license and came back to tell me to “be more careful,” but that he was letting me off with a warning because I didn’t have any record of a previous traffic violation. He told me to run back home and get my proof of insurance so I wouldn’t be caught without it again.
I know this because the two times I’ve been pulled over for a broken taillight, the officer let me go. In fact, the last time he offered to follow me to an auto parts store and install it for me so I could get back out on the road safely.
I know this because I’ve joked with officers that have pulled me over for speeding in my youth, and they’ve laughed at my jokes and sent me on my way. I once literally handed an officer my freshly purchased Dr Pepper and joked that there was more where that came from.
I know this because the only time I’ve been drawn down on by an officer, I was in the car with my black friend, who was driving through a part of a county known for its racism – so well known that the Klan didn’t even need hoods. It was the presence of my press badge in my purse and the recognition of my name at the newspaper I worked at that set us all free that night. “Does this happen a lot?” I asked him that night. “More than you’d believe,” he said. We began planning our outings away from that county, which was a shame because the hiking was amazing.
I know you’re about to tell me not to demonize cops. Here’s the thing – if I was going off my own experiences, I probably wouldn’t be able to do so either. And I’m not. I’m fully aware that there are great cops out there who care for their neighborhoods, take ownership in them, and seek out ways to establish rapport with the folks that live there.
But here’s the thing – those officers are only good. They’re not great. Great officers would demand better of their unions, would demand that those cops that shoot law-abiding gun owners that are complying with orders in front of their four-year-old daughters not be the beneficiaries of wagon circling. Those good cops would be great if they spoke out against and pointed out biases. Those great chiefs that are great leaders are only good. They’d be great if they unabashedly supported great cops who do speak out, and demanded unions work with their departments to provide better coaching, better mentoring, better monitoring, better accountability. District attorneys would be great, instead of good, if they would prosecute these egregious accounts of instantaneous execution with vigor, not weak sauce.
To my white friends, I’d like you to think back to the last time you were stopped by a police officer. Even if you got a ticket, you’re alive right now – which is more than Sandra Bland can say. Even if you were irritated, you’re alive right now, which is more than Philando Castile can say. If your spouse was at the wheel at the time and your child was in the back seat, did you ever once worry that the act of reaching for his or her wallet would end with him or her being shot in front of your child?
We all know the answer is no. No, you didn’t worry about anything remotely like that. You worried that you’d be late for church or work or school or whatever. You worried that the ticket would make your insurance rate go up. You worried about whether the taillight was an easy fix or one that would necessitate the family schedule gymnastics of taking the car to the mechanic.
And that is white privilege. Your interactions with police officers (like mine) are generally positive, and you emerge alive at the end. Now, the next part of this is trickier to wrap your head around, but here goes: When you recognize that as a white person, your interactions are different, the next step is acknowledging that black people do not have the same interactions.
It’s that simple. You’ll hear people always say things like, “Well, if he/she just did what the officer asked, this wouldn’t have happened.” Philando Castile’s case proves otherwise. It saddens me to think that even this most blatant case probably won’t change the conversation for most people. But I’m hoping it will change yours.
You may even be offended when I mention white privilege, mistakenly thinking I mean white supremacy. Let me explain in the simplest terms: White privilege is the circumstances you were born with. White supremacy is what you do with them. And yes, that means that if you do nothing, you are engaging in de facto white supremacy.
“What can I do?” you may ask. Glad you did:
- Be quiet. Listen to black leaders in the spaces they give daily lessons at – Twitter, Facebook, blogs. Read books (here’s a good running start).
- Provide a signal boost. Retweet the responses of those leaders. Share on social media. Talk about it with others. Write and call your state legislators, U.S. senators and U.S. representatives.
- Use your privilege for good. Do you know a city council person? Contact him or her and ask what they’re willing to do to cut down on things like broken windows policing. Donate money to causes like the Campaign Zero initiative, which is researching and educating on police violence, and what good policing could look like.
- Demand better whenever and wherever you can.
- Believe the aggrieved, and support them.
If we all stand up and demand better, the math says it has to eventually happen. But it will take all of us.